Skip to main content

Karl Smith, DFW, and meta-arguments

Here's Karl Smith, talking about the Eurozone endgame:
Regular reader know my long standing policy advice that averting disaster for now – kicking the can down the road – is the essence of success. In part, I want to use this example to highlight why this makes sense.

There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of by any policy maker, or blogger. Few people know how the medium and long term will actually unfold and I hope I am not waxing to Hanson-esque to say that arguments about the long term are really arguments about the arguers status.

If we actually want to help the world, we focus on details and that usually means the short term. Things we can see closely and understand the nuances of. In short, we Stop Disaster.
Now, Karl is obviously a sharp guy, and I don't have the background to quibble with his economics, but this kind of pop-psych declaiming about the appropriate scope of arguments is one of his most annoying habits. He just casually rules out any sort of future large-scale prediction as a priori impossible, and justifies it in a completely ad hominem way: we can safely ignore any prediction past the medium term, because people making such arguments are really just trying to boost their own status.

Now, some of that is undoubtedly true, and probably applies to all public writing. Vain status-seeking is a powerful motivator--just look inside a gym sometime. As Orwell said, "all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy." But let's take Smith's leg-sweeping one step further. Is arguing that all cosmic predictions are 100% status-seeking itself a kind of status-seeking? After all, declaring a sizable percentage of economic predictions—and a bunch of academia too—to be entirely about self-aggrandizement is pretty derned cocky. Further: by suggesting this, am I also status-seeking? (Well, yeah.) Does this have fuck-all to do with whether any argument is true? Nope.

This kind of infinite regression, "arch-meta...heavily footnoted, winky-winky, self-conscious-about-its-winky-winkyness, too-clever-by-half, drunk-on-postmodern-hijinks" stuff is what makes David Foster Wallace such a pain in the ass on occasion. Sometimes you have to stand up, brush your shoulders off, decide to forget about all that meta-psychological shit, and give each argument an honest consideration. After all, if we look at history, sometimes people do get the big things right. Here's Milton Friedman on the Euro in 2000:
I think the euro is in its honeymoon phase. I hope it succeeds, but I have very low expectations for it. I think that differences are going to accumulate among the various countries and that non-synchronous shocks are going to affect them. Right now, Ireland is a very different state; it needs a very different monetary policy from that of Spain or Italy...

You know, the various countries in the euro are not a natural currency trading group. They are not a currency area. There is very little mobility of people among the countries. They have extensive controls and regulations and rules, and so they need some kind of an adjustment mechanism to adjust to asynchronous shocks—and the floating exchange rate gave them one. They have no mechanism now.

If we look back at recent history, they’ve tried in the past to have rigid exchange rates, and each time it has broken down. 1992, 1993, you had the crises. Before that, Europe had the snake, and then it broke down into something else. So the verdict isn’t in on the euro. It’s only a year old. Give it time to develop its troubles.
He nailed that prediction. It was almost completely correct. If Europe had followed his advice, things would have turned out very much better in the long term. Was that status-seeking? What was it, a coincidence? One could also posit that the desire for higher status might motivate people to make predictions that turn out to be correct. In any case, who cares? This kind of question is impossible to answer.

The ironic thing is that Smith himself is sometimes prone to the worst kind of boneheaded big-picture projections. Take this stunner of a post from last December:
Nonetheless, we should pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North American regarding fossil fuel production...

Lastly, and this will persuade few people but it is important, 100 years is a long time in the industrial age. However, it is simply forever in the information age. There is an extremely high chance that the very nature of human society itself will have changed by that time in ways that render this entire issue moot.
This was memorably skewered by James Wimberley:
Read the whole thing as a fine example of yahoo values, data-free scaremongering and reckless optimism, and an indifference to economic reasoning.
The last paragraph cited is self-refuting. It´s very likely to Smith that humans will stop needing food, transport, consumer durables, heating and cooling, and shelter because of an unspecified information singularity, as in Charles Stross´ SF romp Accelerando. On the other hand, the risk of population losses on a genocidal scale as a result of well understood and carefully modelled climatic processes can be ignored.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I am not remotely convinced that kicking the can down the road is the essence of success. Sometimes it is possible to see, with some margin of error, what will happen on a grand scale. Right now it looks to me like the Eurozone was a crazy idea that could never have worked and will never work, and that Ireland, and Portugal, and Greece and Spain and Italy et al, will be forever doomed to poverty so long as they remain inside. Kicking the can, therefore, looks like it will just postpone the inevitable.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included . But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that. So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms. The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no s

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that